JPJ: Stamp of Greatness
Thankfully, the documentary abandons the postage stamp angle within a few seconds, and gets down to telling stories. Any time a small film crew attempts to portray the "real" exploits of John Paul Jones, it's worth the price of admission. Small film crews, like Jones, have minimal budgets. This Jones is no Elliot Ness, as in the 1959 Hollywood flick with Robert Stack.
Instead we get a cunning low-rent JPJ whose legendary "raids" on Whitehaven and Selkirk Castle are almost comically realistic. Jones knew his single ship Ranger, recently of Portsmouth, NH, was little more than a flea on the back of the elephantine British Royal Navy. So he had to take tiny bites in the most sensitive of places, and get out alive to bite again.
In place of the grand often-painted naval battles, we first see Jones strategy in action. His crew, who had no idea what he was doing, simply sneak ashore, disable the local artillery, set fire to a small boat and retreat back to the Ranger. No blood is shed. That's how it really happened.
Despite high name recognition and world-wide fame both during the Revolution and today, John Paul Jones remains largely unknown. This documentary shows an even less known Jones, Scottish by birth, whose genius lay, not only his fierce fighting and nautical skills, but in the careful planning and risk management. Jones played the odds, time and again, and won. The British would be alarmed, Jones knew, by repeated successful attacks on their own soil, no matter how small, since each strike grew larger in the telling.
Jones next attacks Selkirk Castle in Scotland, a place he knew well from his boyhood. Jones imagined the Earl of Selkirk to be a powerful political figure (which he wasn't) and planned to kidnap him and hold him in trade for the release of colonial prisoners. Jones cleverly tricked local able-bodied men to stay out of his way by convincing them that his crew was actually a British press gang looking to draft soldiers to fight the American Paul Jones. Having heard of the recent attack at Whitehaven, the locals ran.
The Earl was out of town and the documentary re-enacts the Selkirk "raid" which was really more a knock on the door. The documentary plays the story neatly from the actual letters of the Countess of Selkirk who saw the men from Portsmouth ("horrid looking wretches") outside her door. The officers politely burgle the house silver, drink wine, chat about America with the servants, and even provide the Countess with a receipt for the goods. Embarrased by the plundering, as polite as it was, Jones did not participate in the looting, and later purchased the booty from his men and shipped it back to Selkirk with his apologies.
Happy to have won some spoils at last, Jones men were willing to battle the HMS Drake, eventually capturing nearly 200 sailors whom Jones traded for American prisoners. This military victory established Jones as the most feared pirate of the British Isles, and made him a hero in Holland, France, America and other countries unhappy with British Imperialism.
Shot aboard a real tall ship (see below) and among realistic location settings, "Stamp of Greatness" hits the highlights of Jones British attack crisply. The slightly tongue-in-cheek narration prevents the usual stuffy godlike Navy characterization of Jones. A wide-range of paintings and illustrations are skillfully edited into the story.
Amazingly, the whole story comes together in less than half an hour. The bulk of the video covers the Ranger raid, then makes quick work of his life from the Bonhomme Richard battles to his service to the Czarina Catherine the Great of Russia. Jones hurriedly dies in Paris, is disinterred and brought to America in 1905, eulogized and the credits role. The narrator remembers at the last second to talk about Jones postage stamp, just in case we forgot the excuse for the video.
Thankfully unslick, "Stamp of Greatness" is an excellent intro to the life of Jones because, though treated with respect, his failings and humanity shine through. This is a Jones that makes sense, unlike the one manufactured and promoted by history books, Teddy Roosevelt and the US Navy.
Review by J. Dennis Robinson
© 1999 SeacoastNH.com
Stand-In for "The Ranger"
With New Hampshire history buffs building up a good case of Ranger fever as locals work to create a replica of the famous ship, we asked the producers what ship played the part of Ranger in the film. The credits at the conclusion list the ship as "Squaresail," which turns out to be the company that owns the ship Kaskelot used in the documentary. Built in Denmark in 1948, the Kaskelot is larger than Ranger and has starred in many films. For more information contact Square-sail online.
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© 1999 SeacoastNH.com. Images used by permission.
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